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DJ1.0: Before I Start My Presentation, Let Me Explain Why I’m Not Wearing Any Pants

January 29th, 2007 · No Comments

DJ1.0, Contributing EditorDJ1.0 is a contributing editor of TechDarkSide.com. We don’t know much about DJ1.0, since he participates in the dark side anonymously. We suspect DJ1.0 is a “he” since he refers to a wife in an early post, but then again, maybe they’re from Massachusetts… Either way, you can reach DJ1.0 at dj10@techdarkside.com.

“Good morning everyone. My name is DJ1.0. Let me explain why I’m not wearing pants.” That was the first thing I said when I got the chance to speak. I had been paid to come to the University of Kentucky for an early morning session with prominent faculty members and professors. The topic was educational software development, but first I had to explain why I was wearing bright red pajamas with a dress shirt.

It was certainly not how I intended my day to begin. As I looked out at the people staring back at me, I grew more nervous. This was not some class with a bunch of under graduates where not having pants would be seen as cool and rebellious. I was not trying to stick it to the man. I had just screwed up. Accidents happen. If you are lucky, they happen to other people. I wasn’t.

Just ten minutes earlier in my hotel room, I opened the new shirt and pants bought just for this event. It wasn’t until I went to button the pants that I knew something was really wrong. The pants would not button. I don’t mean they were a little tight. I mean no matter how much I wiggled or held my breath or duct taped, those pants were not going to fit. Unless I somehow bought metric pants, the size was way off. I guess my wife is right – you should always try on clothes before you buy.

Now what? It was 7:20 in the morning. I had to go on in ten minutes. Nothing was open. The only other thing I had to wear was the pajamas I wore when I drove down the night before. My pajamas would not pass for pants – they looked like pajamas. They also were bright red and covered with University of Cincinnati logos. That should go over well at the University of Kentucky. These people paid for this? I was sure this event was going to end badly and I wonder if my resume was up to date.

As soon as I realized I was in trouble I examined my options. By the time I could find new pants, my speaking slot would be over. Changing slots was not an option. I could cancel. I could show up late and blame traffic. I could also simply be honest about what happen and use it to endear myself to the audience. What choice did I have but to tell the truth? With new found bravery, born of necessity, I put on a fresh new shirt and bright red UC pajama bottoms. At least the pajamas were reasonably clean. I hoped that I did not look as stupid as I felt because I felt really really stupid.

Of course, all of this was my fault. I had compounded mistake after mistake to put myself in this position. I had not prepared properly, which forced me to work late the previous evening to get ready for the even. Then I purchased brand new clothes for a business trip without trying them on. I traveled in pajamas. I got to the hotel late. I set my alarm for 6:45, thinking I could shave, shower, eat and get there in 45 minutes. I was wrong.

So, when my name was announced, I approached the podium and told my story. Of course, I left out the part about not preparing until the night before. I joked that at least I wasn’t wearing arch rival University of Louisville pajamas because that “would have been embarrassing.” I joked that my pants would have fit if I had not gone to Dudley’s, a famous local restaurant.

As it turns out, honesty with a little mix of self-deprecation was the winning formula. I must have told the story at least five times throughout the day. Each time I recited it, I received the same result: a warm and friendly reception. After all, everyone makes mistakes. The host graciously sent someone out to buy new pants. By the afternoon, I had new pants and we all had a great story for dinner.

Your early career is like wearing snowshoes in a minefield. The more you stomp around the more likely you are to blow your foot off. You are going to screw up. Every company has that one person who sees nothing but success. If you find that person stay close to them, stay close to them. (Of course, if you do find that person, that obviously means it isn’t you.) But don’t expect to go your whole career without making a few really stupid blunders.

Since only a lucky few will avoid mistakes and missteps, you should have some tools to help you deal with those mistakes. In the end, how you respond to your mistakes is more important than the mistakes themselves.

You could always try and pin the blame on someone else. This is a great survival technique and despite what you may hear, it does work. However, the effectiveness of this technique is itself a problem. Pushing someone else off a life raft will in fact conserve your food. While you have strengthened your position, don’t expect others left in the raft to trust you or save you. They will probably conspire to throw you off the raft.

Pushing someone else onto a sword meant for you is tough to pull off. This kind of political jujitsu is best left for later in your career, when you are more powerful, more experienced and much more jaded. Unlike honesty, if you fail here, you are going down. Nobody likes a snake – on or off a plane.

Truth be told, honesty is not always the best policy. However, it is the most consistent and easy to remember. But there are rules to consider when being honest…

Take responsibility for your mistakes, not the mistakes of others. Being honest is not a license for others to take advantage. Cultivating a reputation for honesty will allow management and your team to trust you. It can also protect you if things get crazy. If you are someone people trust, then your version of events will be believed. Much later, you can use that to lie and screw people over – if you want to go that route.

Honesty is best served with a tiny bit self-deprecation. However, you must be careful. It’s not like gravy that you pour over everything. Too much too often and people will start to believe it and lose faith in you. Just a little now and then is sufficient.

Self-deprecation only works when it comes from self-confidence and self-realization. When you know yourself well enough that you can joke about yourself in a confident way, it has the effect of humanizing you. If it comes from right place, self-deprecation can endear you to your audience and bring them to you.

Others need to see you know you’re not perfect. They have to feel you understand you have weaknesses too. They need to see you recognize what can be improved within yourself and that you are not afraid.

Self-deprecation never works unless it is genuine. Sometimes people are really just fishing for compliments. They put themselves down just so others have to step in with a compliment.

Other times, it comes from a position of elitism and superiority. For example, rich people who joke about being poor or beautiful women who joke about how ugly they are. It is dishonest and fake and we know it.

You have to deliver. This is the key to many things, but ultimately if I had not delivered a great presentation, I could not have overcome my mistake. If you deliver and come through, then your mistakes are easier to explain away because we all make them. This is especially true when you are honest about screwing up. It shows you know you can deliver and you are not afraid to trust yourself. In turn, since you have delivered, others will be more likely to trust you.

Be tactful. Honesty doesn’t mean calling someone names. Tact is one of the pillars of civil society. Lack of it is a sure way to end a promising career. There are hundreds of ways to say the same thing. There is no excuse to do it with angry words and personal attacks.

Don’t let it happen again. People are willing to forgive if they suspect this is not going to happen again. If mistakes come from a systemic problem you won’t address, honesty will not help. People know there is a difference and they are looking for you to show them. Just as our laws distinguish between accidents and negligence, people do also. Teams that work closely together and rely on each other do so even more. Honesty can only work in your favor when others believe you are personally working to prevent a repeat performance.

DJ1.0 will be posting a series of articles on TechDarkSide, chronicling the follies of learning the hard way.

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